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Why Olympic hero Mahé Drysdale is running for Mayor of Tauranga

The two-time gold medallist reveals how running for Mayor of Tauranga has tipped his household upside down
Mahe Drysdale sitting in some tall grassesPictures: Katie Hurlow

Since retiring from rowing in 2021, life for Olympic hero Mahé Drysdale has been cruising along nicely. Gruelling early morning training is a thing of the past and he’s enjoying working a nine-to-five job as a financial analyst at Forsyth Barr, a role that requires no international travel.

All three of his children are thriving, and he and his wife, fellow Olympic rower Juliette, are finally getting full nights of sleep now their youngest is a little older. It feels like luxury, the former athlete says.

So in true Mahé fashion, it’s time to shake things up – and what spells madness quite like a mayoral campaign?

With a cheeky grin on his face, the 45-year-old tells Woman’s Day, “Exactly! We thought, ‘Let’s tip our lives upside down, put it into complete chaos and see if I can be elected Mayor of Tauranga!’”

Laughing as she and Mahé settle in for a chat, Juliette, 41, adds, “Oh, and we just got a puppy too for good measure, so it really is pure chaos!”

Mahé Drysdale holding a New Zealand flag with a medal round his neck after his Olympic win
Our golden boy in his heyday.

While he’s one of New Zealand’s greatest Olympians, with two gold medals to his name, Mahé’s political aspirations might come as a surprise to some Kiwis. In fact, they even came as a surprise to his wife.

“It took him 10 days to convince me he was serious,” says Juliette, who won a bronze medal rowing in the women’s pairs at the 2012 London Games. “It came so out of the blue for me and it took me a while to understand just how serious he is about this opportunity. But now all I see is how excited and passionate he is about it.”

While the mayoral race might be a little different to a rowing regatta, the fundamentals are the same, says Mahé. Dedication, passion, hard work and commonsense will be the key components. But he totally understands why people might struggle to understand why he’d put himself forward for such a demanding public role.

“I had to think long and hard about it,” he confesses. “Initially, I was quite reluctant – as I said, life was pretty good with where the family was at. But after a bit more investigation and thinking, I got really excited. I saw all the potential for the city if we get a great group of people around the table.

Mahé Drysdale and wife Juliette
Wife Juliette says Mahé’s just as passionate about his new goal.

“I chatted to a few people about it confidentially and everyone was amazingly encouraging, especially Juliette. Even the kids are on board, as long as we move somewhere that has a farm for the chickens, cows and sheep – that’s their only concern!”

Mahé adds that he believes Tauranga can be the best small city in Aotearoa.

“It’s already blessed with natural assets such as Mauao [Mt Maunganui] and the beach, but with a young family, I want to make it a great place for other families to enjoy, with great playgrounds, sports grounds and facilities – a place everyone wants to come live, work and play. But affordable housing and infrastructure are big issues to solve.”

Mahé Drysdale with kids Boston and Bronte on either side of him, and youngest Frankie sitting on his shoulders
Mahé’s kids (from left) Boston, Frankie and Bronte are his biggest cheerleaders.

Currently based in Cambridge, life will look very different for the Drysdales if Mahé is successful in his campaign. He and Juliette refuse to uplift their three kids, Bronte, nine, Boston, seven, and four-year-old Frankie until things are known for certain. But they do plan to relocate to Mahé’s hometown if he become mayor.

It’s an exciting prospect for the Tauranga Boys’ College graduate, but one he knows is a huge deal for the whole wha¯nau.

“Honestly, from a family perspective, it’s not the ideal time to be doing something like this,” Mahé admits. “It’s why it took me quite a long time to make the final decision and figure it all out with Juliette. But the opportunity is now – not in four or eight years.

The Drysdale family sitting in tall grasses spending time together
The sporty family is more than happy to make the move.

“This is a big challenge. It’s a four-year challenge, which feels very familiar to me with the four-year Olympic cycles of rowing. What I achieved in rowing was the result of having a vision and a dream, then setting a pathway to success to achieve it.

“That’s what I want to do. And sure, it’s a challenge, but I’ve never shied away from a challenge.”

And he has a passionate support team. Juliette smiles, “Bronte has a pretty good understanding of what the deal is. The other two know that it’s something significant. They’re all very proud of their dad. I am too.”

Now a professional photographer who regularly shoots for this magazine, Juliette has flexibility over her work schedule. This gives her time to play taxi for the kids while Mahé commutes to Tauranga for the campaign.

The Drysdale family standing together in tall grasses

Their weekends are spent driving all over the Waikato to different extracurriculars – football, rugby, piano, swimming and ballet – but Sunday mornings are reserved for some special family time, which takes place out on the water, of course.

“We all go kayaking together on Sunday mornings, which is nice,” grins Mahé. “It’s a bit different to rowing, obviously, but paddling forward means we can all see where we’re going!”

Many Kiwis might remember Mahé for his determined and humble approach to sport. However, he’s also never been afraid to speak his mind when he sees injustice or inequality. He’s currently co-chair of the Athlete’s Cooperative. The co-op was formed to push for the rights and fair treatment of our high-performance athletes.

Mahé Drysdale sitting in his rowing boat celebrating his Olympic win

“I’m someone who fights for what I believe in,” he says. “There have been times in the past where I’ve taken criticism for that, but that’s just who I am. I’d much prefer that than to just sit back and watch injustice.”

As he ramps up his campaign, Mahé has been experiencing the uncomfortable inevitability of trolls and keyboard warriors for the first time. Putting himself and, by extension, his family in the public eye was a concern before he announced his candidacy. However, it was a risk he was willing to take.

“It’s interesting,” Mahé muses. “I rarely saw any negativity about me when I was rowing. Now, obviously, it’s different. There’s all sorts of negative comments. For example, ‘He’s a sportsperson – what does he know about politics?’ or, ‘He doesn’t have the skills!’ That’s fine. I take the negative and use it. It makes me want to get this job and show them – it’s what I’ve done all my life.”

In the most Kiwi of twists, Mahé’s uncle Doug is also running in the Tauranga mayoral race, making it a family affair. Especially as Mahé’s late grandfather, Sir Bob Owens, was a former mayor of both Tauranga and Mount Maunganui.

“My grandfather was a big inspiration to me, but I’m a different man to him, as well as my uncle. My uncle and I run on quite different aspirations, and that’s what’s so great about democracy – it’s up to the people to decide who they think is the best person for the job.”

Mahé Drysdale and wife Juliette tickling their children

If Mahé wants to encourage the people of Tauranga to do anything, it’s just simply to vote – even if it’s not for him.

“Voter turnout for local body elections is always really low. Usually somewhere around 30%. But it’s the local stuff that actually impacts your day-to-day life far more than central government,” he says. “It’s transport, planning rules, recreation spaces and the amenities in your community.”

Of his leadership style, Mahé adds, “The greatest leader I ever met was [former rower and businessman] Sir Don Rowlands. His mantra was always, ‘Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, take all the blame and deflect all the praise.’

“That, to me, is how I want to operate. I’m not going into this campaign with any ego or ideas of grandeur. I just want to work with a great team and make a difference.

“As a rower, I’ve spent my life going backwards. Now it’s time to go forwards.”

To read up on Mahe’s promises in his electoral campaign, visit mahedrysdale.co.nz.

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